How Community Is Helping Nigeria Weather COVID-19

An interview with Olakunle Oginni on the Nigerian response to COVID-19.

Posted Aug 30, 2020

Olakunle Oginni, used with permission
Source: Olakunle Oginni, used with permission

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt everyday life, emphasis on community and family is helping Nigerians cope with the physical and mental strain of COVID-19.  

Olakunle Oginni is a lecturer and psychiatrist at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He is a fellow of the West African College of Physicians and a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He is currently studying at the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, King’s College London for a Ph.D. in Behavioural Genetics and is being funded by the UK Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. His Ph.D. is focused on the relationships between early-life factors and the increased risk for physical and mental health problems in lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) individuals, and genetic influences on these relationships. His paper demonstrates that the increased risky sexual behaviour among LGB individuals is partly due to increased mental health problems among them was recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Jamie Aten: How would you personally describe the COVID-19 situation in Nigeria?

Olakunle Oginni: The rates of the new COVID infections are still rising in Nigeria. Personally, I would say the COVID-19 situation is a test of our individual and collective capacity to cope with country-level emergencies. On the individual level, the sources of stress include the fear of getting infected and economic implications such as not being able to earn an income and the threat of not being able to meet one’s own needs. All of these can in turn increase psychological distress and threaten well-being. At the societal level, the COVID-19 situation has demonstrated that our infrastructures—welfare and health—are not sufficient enough to cope with systemic stress.

JA: What are some ways understanding Nigeria's COVID-19 situation can help us live more resiliently?

OO: Nigerians have a strong sense of community. Typically, during periods of stress, illness and financial difficulty, many people get emotional and financial support from their families. Nigerians are also typically religious, and research has shown that religion is one of the most commonly used coping strategies used by Nigerians. What religion probably does is give one a sense of purpose and meaning which can help one remain grounded and at the same time foster a sense of community. While highlighting good strategies, it will also be helpful to deemphasise unhelpful strategies such as denial. I watched a BBC video recently in which some Nigerians thought that the COVID situation is a hoax. If we disregard the gravity of the situation, we run the risk of failing to take steps to ensure we remain physically and mentally well. In conclusion, we can learn from the Nigerian situation the importance of maintaining a sense of community as well as keeping a sense of purpose and meaning.

JA: What are some ways people can cultivate resilience amidst this pandemic?

OO: I think this will vary from person to person. Specific to the pandemic, some practical steps may include adhering to a structured routine which is as close as possible to one’s pre-lockdown routine and allow for some flexibility. This may be as mundane as maintaining regular sleeping and waking times to maintaining previous work schedules—if one is still employed. One could use any increased free time to take on projects that had been neglected; this can help one feel productive. More generally, having a support network is usually very helpful. This can be helpful for emotional support and renewing one’s motivation and sense of purpose. Leisure time should also be carefully protected, this allows one to properly unwind and recharge enough to be able to cope with stress during this time. Leisure activities may be as simple as watching a movie, reading a book, cooking, exercise or tending plants on a window ledge (in case you don’t have a garden!). It can also be useful to look out for others—this can maintain social connection, foster a sense of meaning and usefulness, and help one feel positive about oneself which is good for one’s self-esteem.

JA: Any advice for how we might use what you have learned to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

OO: A first step would be to watch out for our friends and loved ones generally so we can know when they are going through a difficult situation. Being in regular contact keeps the lines of communication open and they can tell us when they are going through a difficult time. Alternatively, what we may notice is that they are becoming less communicative, in which case we can ask specifically if they are going through difficult times. Often, it can help to provide emotional support by listening while they talk through their difficulties. We can also help by identifying practical steps that can be taken to reduce distress. Sometimes too, the help we can give is to recognise that they need more professional support, and we suggest this to them and support them in getting this.

JA:  What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

OO: At the moment, I am trying to finish my Ph.D.! Specifically, I am trying to replicate an earlier finding in which higher risky sexual behaviour among lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) individuals was partly explained by the higher rates of mental health problems among them; and further investigating the added impact of social difficulties such as abuse and neglect in childhood and intimate partner violence. I am also comparing identical and non-identical twins to further estimate genetic and non-genetic influences on this relationship. Related to the COVID pandemic, my Nigerian colleagues and I are also conducting an online survey among Nigerians to investigate the associations between mental health, social support and COVID-related factors such as being in lockdown and having been infected, and whether these relationships differ among LGB and heterosexual individuals.

References

Oginni, O. A., Amiola, A., Adelola, A., & Uchendu, U. (2020). A commentary on the Nigerian response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(5), 553-556. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000743